La lutte continue …

Arthur Goldhammer
28 December 2019

This strike is now longer than that of ’95, with no end yet in sight. Although Parisian tempers are fraying, public support for the strike remains high, yet the government shows no sign of backing down (even as the president vacations in the south of France and his ecology minister suns herself in Morocco–not a good look in the midst of a general strike). The strikers remain determined, despite substantial loss of income, while the economy at large has suffered a major hit, with substantial damage to retail sales during the holiday season, enormous losses by the SNCF and in the tourist industry, and knock-on losses in other sectors. So what next, as the situation becomes increasingly volatile and dangerous?

The left hopes to salvage itself from this imbroglio. Even Olivier Faure has discovered that the rhetoric of resistance seems more promising at the moment than the rhetoric of reform, and some commentators envision a “Mélenchonization” of the PS. But the declaration that emerged from the “Union de la Gauche” meeting organized in Saint-Denis at the behest of the PCF(!) was weak tea:

Elle suggère d’« améliorer le système de retraite solidaire par répartition sans pour autant augmenter l’âge de départ en retraite ou allonger la durée de cotisation », en évoquant vaguement un élargissement de l’assiette de financement. Un contre-projet en bonne et due forme attendra.

Decoded, this statement appears to acknowledge the need for reform–here rebranded amélioration du système–to be achieved without altering the status quo in any meaningful way. On the other hand, one might read a ray of hope in this formulation, given that it talks only about standing firm on the retirement age and required duration of contributions while carefully avoiding the move to a point system and the reform of the special regimes. So would the left be prepared to compromise on this if the government drops the âge pivot?

If so, Macron might be prepared to make a dramatic move by, for example, seizing on the occasion of the annual New Year’s wish speech from the Elysée to announce a tactical retreat. We know his fondness for the dramatic gesture from on high as a means of defusing an explosive situation. Perhaps he can once again pull a rabbit out of a hat.

But will the magic work if he tries it? Perhaps not. My sense is that the striking workers, far more than the party leaders of the left or the union leadership, have begun to smell blood. The change in tactics from repeated, isolated strikes, which did not work, to continuous but rolling strikes, keeping the country paralyzed but alleviating lost wages by allowing partial returns to work, seems to be working. Of course, if the president makes a gesture, public sympathy, which remains with the strikers for now, could shift quickly.

Of course, social movements have a way of becoming intoxicated on their own rhetorical distillations, and the verbal escalation of this movement from banal strike to existential Armageddon pitting the Resistance (harking back all the way to the postwar CNR) against the Evil Empire of Neoliberalism seeking to rob the People of their Acquis Sociaux has gotten a bit out of hand, even in the comments to some of my previous posts. We shall see. If the movement continues until the scheduled rally on Jan. 9, it could be re-galvanized by its sheer longevity. That is why I think Macron will do something to head off that rendezvous and try to turn things in a different, more productive direction. But I could be wrong. He hasn’t proved very adroit thus far, and my expectations may be unduly optimistic. His reserves of support in the country are dwindling, and if he lets things come to a head, there will be no counter-movement to rescue him comparable to the one that rescued de Gaulle in 1968. It will be the end of the Macron presidency a full two years ahead of the final burial, après quoi le déluge.

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5 Comments

  • John Talbott says:

    Arthur,
    I respect your opinion.
    But the “little people” are the ones suffering; immigrants, plongeurs, house cleaners. Neither Macron nor Martinez care about them. They try to work everyday; they need to.
    Things on the ground are very different than seen from Cambridge or France Televisions.
    John

  • FrédéricLN says:

    “His reserves of support in the country are dwindling”: yeah, good point. He rebuilt for himself a kind of support during the months Nov. 18 to June 19, by hardening the tension between the Gilets Jaunes movement and the ruling power (e.g., not accepting the central demand of the Gilets Jaunes, despite they were very easy to accept, i.e. the RIC – he also could have accepted, as Jean Lassalle advised, the acknowledgement of the “vote blanc”, plus the suppression of the “loi Notre” that restrains the liberties of municipalities: the Gilets Jaunes movement would have become void, in cities as well as in the countryside). Macron preferred to keep the flame alive, transforming LREM into a “Parti de l’Ordre”, as you already discussed on this blog.

    He tries so far to keep that kind of support by presenting strikers as dangerous, unorganized people. But the incidents are so rare that, I guess, the argument can convince only a tiny minority (rare: to be compared to workers’ strikes in the 60s or 70s! As well as I remember, cutting off the power was a common practice of trade unions in the State-run electricity company EDF). Moreover, the argument comes in contradiction with the “éléments de langage” praising the workers’ unions for their thorough control of their militants and actions (the workers’ unions being Mr Macron’s only possible partner-for-negotiations so far).

    I really struggle to find (at my tiny citizen’s place!) a way out of this crisis. Even Jean Lassalle did not suggest one as far as I know — as he usually does, most often with a very acute “sens politique” of what could and should be done. His communiqué of December 11th expresses essentially distrust of the way the administration “plays” with the topic (https://resistons-france.fr/reaction-de-jean-lassalle-aux-decalarations-dedouard-philippe-sur-les-retraites-11-12-2019/).

    • bernard says:

      I am with you on this, including the historical precedents. I too remember as perfectly normal electricity strikes in the past, for instance. The present attempts to criminalize strikes and union demonstrations are, in my view laughable. They are the reason why I have found as a nickname “le petit Marcellin marseillais affublé de son mini-Papon” for a present minister.
      More and more, the desperate insistance of the government on adjoining so-called parametric measures (in olden times where people spoke clearly, this would have been called “mesures d’économies”) to what it calls its grand “structural” reform suggests that diminishing retirement pensions is actually the central aim of these reforms rather than some drive towards equity or fairness. Whether that is a worthy objective can be debated, but at the very least it should be debated openly rather than brought in by a ridiculous attempt at stealth.
      Macron would not give the time of the day to unions during the first half of his mandate – I for instance remember the leader of CFDT, a mild reformist if there ever was one, complaining after an entire year about not having had a single word with the president. I am now hearing the CGT being presented literally like a criminal union by various ministers who have zero experience with unions (and zero experience generally speaking) and who visibly would like to see Martinez behind bars. Le petit Marcellin marseillais affublé de son mini-Papon does his best in this sense, visibly desperately hoping for trouble during union demonstrations, and provoking it when, unfortunately, there is none: anyone with demonstration experience knows exactly what is sought when the police are sent in the middle of a previously essentially peaceful demonstration with teargas as was done in the last major December demonstration in Paris.
      I don’t know either how this will end, but increasingly feel that it will end badly. Macron will have lost every single elector from the left who voted for him as they will feel, rightly, that they were taken for an indecent ride by a conman. That was about half his electorate in the previous election.

  • Keith Roberts says:

    Thank you for the informed speculations. My hope is that Macron is more like an FDR, practicing the art of the possible for the public at large, than a Chirac on the right or the hapless Hollande on the left. Happy Nouvelle Année.

  • Anonymous says:

    I’m not clear what the previous writer’s objection to Art’s very good analysis is: is it that those not members of one of the 42 “special regimes” are suffering more than those whose ox will be gored by the reforms? Those “little people” the writer cites include the house cleaners dependent on airbnb’s Paris apartment owners, for example. The continuance of the strikes only drives them deeper into misery, that’s clear.
    Martinez and Macron care about their positions of power, surely, but underpinning them is a view of the “social contract” (also shared by their respective supporters) and how it can be sustained in the present, when it is under great pressure from globalization’s effects. From where each of them sits, the solutions are different, hence the strife.
    There’s an anti-intellectual response to what is at stake now (to which Art makes reference, above), that ignores completely the competing interests on each side. To suggest that the two most powerful players in the current conflict “don’t care” and imply that the reporting from Cambridge (Massachusetts) or France Television, without more, is “very different” from what is actually “on the ground”, is as unhelpful as the two “ad hominem” comments to Art’s prior post. Of course, news reports are not reflective of the experience of any observing bystander: Leaving the point alone to stand for what the previous writer implies is the actual truth “on the ground”, is just more creeping anti-intellectualism.
    In analyzing events we cannot have perfect knowledge, but must rely on what facts come our way and what the documents tell us. Otherwise we cannot evaluate the policies or the political actors who drive them. This conflict between the unions –fighting to remain relevant after the emergence of the “gilets jaunes” last year– and the Macron-Philippe government, does neglect the “little people”, as the previous writer points out, but there’s nothing new here.
    Even movements that pretend to universality inevitably neglect those left behind who 1. Do not share the ideology that drives the movement; 2. Those who live “in the shadows”; 3. Those so squeezed by their personal situations (e.g., divorced mother of 3 housecleaner with no husband/father helping to keep the household together) they have no political consciousness –the lumpenproletariat.
    So it’s a bit unfair to tar Art for laying out the dynamic between the power players because that dynamic only concerns the conflict between them, and not those marginal to it outside the framework of the fight over policies.
    Then again, the previous writer may have simply been offering his “off the cuff”, or “in brief”, reaction to Art’s analysis. “Brevity may be the soul of wit”, as Polonius said, but it can also make for unintended confusion, which may be the case with John’s comment.
    (Long-windedness, too –though I hope not in this case.)

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